Bye-bye books #SOL21 29/31

I’ve been at my current school for almost eight years. When I arrived, I was awed by our book room: a cavernous space filled with rows and rows of giant, heavy, rolling bookshelves, mostly full to the hilt. That first year, I went down to the book room just to revel in all of the books.

Of course, I never stayed long because the room was centimetres deep in dust and smelled strongly of book mold. Most of the time, my revelling was quick: I scurried in, got a class set of books, and scurried back out, largely leaving the books to other scurrying creatures. Then, at the end of the year, part of my job was counting the books.

That proved to be nearly impossible – books were everywhere and, while they had clearly been vaguely alphabetized at some point, they now appeared to have been organized by someone whose preferred writing system veered more towards the arcane than strict alphabetic. Books were stacked haphazardly on the counters near the front, squirreled away on back shelves so no one else could find them and left, lonely, in the classrooms where they had landed. That summer, I spent sweaty hours trying rearrange the books into some order – any order – struggling to stay in the room long enough without being overwhelmed by the dust. I got somewhere, but not far enough. The work would have to continue into the next year.

As I reorganized, I began to purge. We had set after set of books that were falling apart or mildewed beyond use. We found books that no one in the department recognized. One school year, I declared that no one should leave the book room without throwing away at least three old books. We barely made a dent in things.

Over the years, we’ve used part of a PD day to purge (just 30 minutes to stretch our legs, I swear!) and one teacher even came in with his wife and spent hours rearranging books into a *much* better system than the original. At first, I kept track of the books we threw away, but eventually that seemed both fruitless and depressing. Still, we found some great things: an old textbook that had been signed out to one of our current teachers – although he had attended another high school; a book once used by a parent of one of our students; and an entire set of books published in 1943, before our school was even built, before our school board even existed. Each time, we marveled, shared, and threw them away.

Throwing books away is emotionally exhausting, so I tend to do it in fits and starts. Sometimes it makes me sad: I have thrown away books I love as their pages flutter out, falling to the floor in an attempt to escape; I have thrown away books I hated in high school, their spines stuck together by duct tape until they form one big clump of unreadable print; I have thrown away books I’ve never read whose covers whisper of bygone eras and stories I don’t yet know, but whose brittle yellow pages actively prevent me from reading them. Sometimes I go in excited to purge: we need to make space for new books! The new books rarely come – our budget doesn’t buy much – but the idea of making space is invigorating. Sometimes I’m wistful: why don’t we read these anymore? Once upon a time, I loved this book. And sometimes I’m angry: why are we still handing out these books? What must the students think when we hand them such damaged material? They certainly know what we value.

Throwing them out is physically exhausting, too, and no matter how much I clean and toss, the dust never seems to dissipate much. I can only spend so much time in the book room, even with a mask on for Covid, before my eyes get red and I start to cough. Then I have to leave.

Today I dragged a colleague in with me, and we threw away three bins of books. Yes, I have been doing this off and on for eight years and I can still fill three bins in a day. (Our bins are biggish trash bins on wheels – not huge ones.) I shuddered as I threw away Fahrenheit 451 – I whispered a silent apology to Bradbury, but the pages were no longer attached to the cover – and Brave New World – but even Huxley would have had to acknowledge that a mouse had eaten through a fair bit of several of his books. I threw away copies of books that haven’t left the book room since 1976. I found books that had last been signed out before I was born. I threw them out. I let go of some Jane Eyre (sigh) and a media textbook from the early 80s. I didn’t feel very bad at all about throwing away some Hemingway short stories, though I had a small pang about the really old Steinbecks. I imagined blackout poetry projects and repurposed book projects and collages and… I threw them out. I checked the contents of poetry anthologies, sighed over my favourites, and tossed them and their cracked spines and missing covers in the bin. It was cathartic and awful and it had to be done.

Somehow, this feels like my last stand: I can almost see the end of the purge. Surely, surely by the end of this school year, we will have a book room that represents what we actually teach (or what we might legitimately teach). The books in there will not be trashy things with yellow pages that creak and smell and fall out as we touch them. Our students will have books that honour them – at least that’s what I hope. Once this round is over, I can give the principal a tour of our near-barren shelves and then I can ask for new books. Right? Right? (Cross your fingers for us!)

When you write with in March or on Tuesdays, you’ll find lots of people who love books as much as you do.

13 thoughts on “Bye-bye books #SOL21 29/31

  1. Wow! I feel like I might start coughing just reading your post. What a wild book room! It really is painful to throw out old books. I always want to save them for something. Even if someone can’t read them, couldn’t they be used for an art project?? But when would I have time or motivation to create a giant installation out of old damaged books?! I am so glad you’ve made such progress and I entirely support the plan to ask for new books!

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  2. This post made me feel exhausted for you. Wow! 8 years of purging and still 3 trash bins full. You are good to take this on. I have books in my classroom I need to purge. I have a falling apart Harry Potter book that I’ve been using for black out poetry and origami. I just can’t make myself toss it out. Why is throwing away books so hard to do?

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  3. A high school book too. Is like an archeological site. Even once clean it reproduces like rabbits and books get scattered and out of order. I understand the angst you feel throwing away old books, but it’s not like they’re out of print or if more than sentimental value. Filling those shelves w/ books by living authors is a fitting tribute to those books you’re tossing. And if you have NHS or the equivalent, have kids earn service hours cleaning up the book room. That’s what we did in my school.

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  4. Fingers crossed for you and the hope of new books. Purging is a job that needs to be done. I was helping to clean out a dated fifth grade library this year. There was lots of tossing. I can’t believe you’ve been at it for 8 years though. Please let us know how the principal tour goes!

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  5. I feel your pain as I have much work to do in our book room. A few years back we were able to discard old textbooks (100s of them) and I remember the dust storm it caused. It was joyful to fill the empty shelves with current title and newer copies. Your piece is reminding me to stay the course because our students deserve better.

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  6. Eight years! That’s a lot of bins of books out the door. It’s a wonder that our spaces are allowed to get into such a state. Clearly your book room has been a dumping ground. I hope you are able to get new books to fill the empty spots!

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  7. I both reveled and cringed reading this. I love organizing, purging, cleaning…but books are HARD. I read that “tidy” book everyone read…socks were easy, clothes I didn’t love were easy, but the books…oh boy. Even books I didn’t like, books I’d never gotten around to reading…all HARD to part with. Basically, I had to move to Guatemala to get rid of books. And, somehow, 10 boxes were waiting for me in my sister’s garage when I got back. Sigh. I’m sad for your school and for the state of your library. Your students deserve so much better, and I hope some money surfaces. Also, why does that Hermit’s Island book look so familiar? Oy.

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  8. This slice *needed* to be long, to convey the effort and pain of this book-purging journey. By the end, I could feel the hope and promise of those empty shelves, and my fingers are crossed that your principal does too. Meantime, this thought occurred to me: For any loose pages that survive the book culling, maybe they’ll have a second life as raw material for blackout poetry (


  9. I could smell the distinctive “book mold” – your words and those photos are as compelling as they are haunting. That room’s like a time capsule. I can relate to the mourning in having to trash books (as pages flutter to the floor “in an attempt to escape” – so visual). Almost hate to confess that I searched eBay and found a copy of a childhood book I loved, which has arrived in appropriately yellowed condition (alas!). Nevertheless – I am all about new books on those shelves and communicating the love of them, the infinite value of them, which is not at all the message those sad old books can convey anymore.

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  10. Oh, Amanda. High school book rooms are mibd-boggling. I may have seen a Grade 9 student in my building reading a taped-together copy of Catcher last week. Your post made me realize there must be a similar room in my new school. Perhaps I’ll volunteer! I also want to work on preventing our current book room from becoming this sort of space. The photos are incredible. I thought I was doing well with the treasure I kept from my last purge – a pet vaccination form from 1974- but your stuff goes even deeper. I love the generational connections!


    1. I threw away quite a few Catchers, and I was no less thorough with some other “classics” we’ve hung on to well past their best by date. If we don’t have class sets, it’s going to be very hard to teach them, isn’t it? Too bad I won’t be using my budget to buy new ones. Mwahaha


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